Beach bacteria thresholds may tighten

Beach waders, surfers and scuba divers could see a spike in advisories against water contact along Oregon beaches under more stringent criteria for bacteria in beach water proposed for 2017.

To meet new federal water-safety standards, the Oregon Beach Monitoring Program has proposed a more than 50 percent drop in the bacteria thresholds for the voluntary advisories to go into effect at places such as Harris Beach near Brookings and 15 others in the program.

That could lead to about 50 percent more advisories issued by the program, but "that's dependent upon precipitation," says Tara Chetock, the program's coordinator.

Summer rainfall flushes bacteria from inland into creeks and rivers that flow into the ocean, and that is the most common way for bacteria to reach beaches, Chetock says.

Six advisories were issued last summer at beaches, including Harris Beach, a popular destination for Rogue Valley residents looking to cool off and play in the saltwater. There were 13 advisories in 2014, according to program data.

"We had fewer advisories this year, likely because of less rainfall," Chetock says.

The newer standards come at a recommendation by the federal Environmental Protection Agency after studies suggested that exposure to the bacteria at the current threshold may still cause gastrointestinal illnesses from accidental ingestion of water during recreational activities, according to the program.

The program has planned a series of meetings later this month to collect public comment on the potential changes, including one on Tuesday, Oct. 20, in Coos Bay. Public comments also will be taken electronically through April 2016.

The program monitors water quality at 16 Oregon beaches from Memorial Day through Labor Day, which is the most popular beach-going period. Along with Harris, other South Coast beaches in the program are Mill and Sporthaven in Brookings, Crissey Field in Gold Beach, Hubbard Creek and Battle Rock near Port Orford, Bandon, and Sunset and Bastendorff near Coos Bay/North Bend.

The program is required by and funded through the federal Beaches Environmental Assessment and Coastal Health Act, passed by Congress in 2000.

Bacteria thresholds are measured under a standard called the Most Probable Number, which is an estimate of the amount of bacteria units in 100 milliliters of water that is run through ultraviolet light. It replaces the more cumbersome counting of exact numbers of bacteria units under a measurement called Colony Forming Units.

The current threshold for the voluntary advisories is 158 MPN. The program's new EPA-based recommendation is 70 MPN.

The Oregon region of the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit organization of surfers and other beachgoers who work on ocean-protection and water-quality issues, supports the beach-monitoring program, but Oregon policy manager Charlie Plybon worries the new standard could lead to less beach protection and not more.

More beach advisories issued by the always cash-strapped program would mean more required retesting to see whether bacteria levels abate, Plybon says. That could lead to fewer beaches getting tested while others get regular retesting, he says.

"We don't believe this is going to be a very big health benefit," says Plybon, of the Newport area.

Other states have taken EPA's option to develop their own criteria, but that would require extensive testing by DEQ to justify its conclusions, Plybon says. Oregon and Washington, therefore, have opted to work toward adopting the EPA thresholds, he says.

"We support the beach-monitoring program in what direction they want to go," Plybon says.

Reach reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

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